Ask Ellen Barry about herself and she'll invariably tell you about someone else. The celebrated San Francisco–based advocate for women in prison isn't exactly shy, but she'd much rather talk about her clients. For instance, there's the story of Delores, a former heroin user who sought to turn her life around a few years ago after learning she was pregnant with her third child. Delores signed up for a drug recovery program and turned herself in for a probation violation.
The public defender told Delores not to worry—that given her situation, no judge would give her jail time. He was wrong. She got six months in the Alameda County jail, where, five months into her pregnancy, she was placed in a cell and forced to kick her heroin habit with no medical supervision. Six weeks later, she was allowed to see an obstetrician, but only once. At eight and a half months, after suffering severe abdominal pains, she was taken to a hospital where her daughter was delivered via cesarean section, perfectly formed but stillborn.
Delores was devastated by the loss of her baby. But with help from other women inmates brave enough to come forward, she and Barry filed a successful suit against the jail; the settlement mandated improved medical and prenatal care for women prisoners. Upon her release, Delores continued speaking out on prison reform issues, and later became an organizer with the AFL-CIO.
"I have so much admiration for people who face tremendous odds, who go through a journey to hell and come back," Barry says. "So many of the people I've had the privilege of working with inside [prisons] have, in very deep and significant ways, gone into issues of ethics, of right and wrong, asking themselves, 'What have I done? Who have I hurt? What do I do about that?' That's the kind of courage that means something to me—----not just coming into a comfortable environment, skating by in school, taking a job, and playing your golf game."
Barry's own journey began in the working-class Boston suburb of Somerville, where she was the eldest of 10 children in an Irish-Catholic family. Many of her siblings struggled with alcoholism and other problems, and she often found herself at the local jail visiting her brothers, who were sometimes victims of beatings by the city's notoriously brutal police force. After earning a scholarship to Swarthmore and a fellowship to New York University law school, she committed herself to public interest law and in 1978 started Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), an advocacy group working to protect the rights of families in an increasingly hostile legal system. In the mid '80s she helped organize the National Network for Women in Prison, a coalition speaking up for the growing numbers of women behind bars.
To be sure, Barry's work is rarely popular, especially at a time when politicians all want to show how tough they are on crime, and prisons have replaced social programs as the cure-all for society's ills. "We've entered a disturbing period that promotes a retributionist, punitive attitude toward people in our society who haven't 'made it,' who are underdogs, who don't have the financial means that other people have, and who may have disabilities like mental illness and addictions to deal with," she says.
The numbers back her up. When Barry began LSPC, there were about 1,200 women in the California state prison system. Now there are more than 13,000—not counting those in the county jail systems, which handle nearly as many. To raise awareness, she has joined former Black Panther Angela Davis, now on the faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and others to form Critical Resistance, a coalition of groups working against the expansion of the U.S. prison system. They have found allies among activists interested in immigrant rights, mental health, education, and labor, as well as among artists like John Trudell and Ani DiFranco, who have performed on behalf of the organization.
A small, bright-eyed woman with long graying hair, the 44-year-old Barry hums with an energy that's both tough and maternal. Having spent over 20 years in a field that traditionally receives little public acclaim, she was more than a bit surprised last year when she received a $275,000 "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her efforts on behalf of prisoners. The grant will ensure that—for the first time in her adult life—she won't have to raise funds to pay her own salary. She plans to step down as director of LSPC and use the money to complete a book with Davis on incarcerated women while also expanding her teaching and organizing work.